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Gone to the Forest


June 15, 2012

The circle of refined company is shrinking day by day. Once there were dances and banyan parties—once there was a social calendar!

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Photograph courtesy of Elle Perez

One by one the gentleman farmers are moving. The idea of living in open land surrounded by natives is no longer appealing. Those with houses in the cities are giving up the country life and moving north. They are closing their farms and estates, which are becoming too hard to protect, having always been vast and exposed. They leave them in the hands of the hardier settlers who remain in the province and are a restless and violent presence. They do not say when they might return.

The circle of refined company is shrinking day by day. Once there were dances and banyan parties—once there was a social calendar! Tom and his father remain. His father does not believe in the city. The other farmers tell him to move out of the country, that it is dying in front of them, that soon it will no longer be safe. His father chooses to stay on the side of the land. He cannot imagine being without the farm. In this, father and son are united.

Furniture brought over from the old country by his mother or father. Objects shipped to them by strangers. He finds these histories oppressive but has essentially grown used to it. Tom does not expect privacy, even in his own room.

It is now near evening. Tom stands in front of the mirror in his room. It is large and crowded with things. Furniture brought over from the old country by his mother or father. Objects shipped to them by strangers. He finds these histories oppressive but has essentially grown used to it. Tom does not expect privacy, even in his own room. Carefully, he adjusts the lapel on his jacket and smoothes his hair back with grease. He checks the crease in his trousers and then leaves the room, closing the door behind him.

He walks the house in search of his father. He goes across the foyer, which is full of potted trees. Miniature orange trees. Plum trees. He passes the dining room and notes the good linen and silver and china. He sees that the table is now set for five. Five plates, five sets of glasses and cutlery. He pauses, and then walks out to the veranda, slowly.

He walks in the direction of the river and finds his father within minutes. The open land pulls to the river. Which has become the old man’s sole preoccupation as the province empties and the tourism dwindles. A year ago, they installed the river farm. Now the pools float in the middle of the river like space age contraptions. The fish birthing and growing, inside the skin of the device. The river flushing in and out.

Tom frowns as he looks at the river. The old man has staked much on the river farm. The pools were installed at vast expense and they sucked the savings—the bounty of those years of lush tourism, now coming to an end—right into the water. At first, it did not seem promising. The natives talked of evil and contamination. The eggs floated in the steel and mesh like a river disease.

But then the fish grew. They grew until the pools were full of fish flesh, pressed close together. Now it seems clear that the river farm is what will allow them to live. It will sustain the farm, through the rumors of unrest. It will pay for the imported caviar, the cashmere blankets, the fur coats, the coffee and tea. His father jokes that he is become a fishmonger but already there are plans for more pools, placed downstream, placed upstream. The province empties of landlords and tourists but there are always the fish and the natives.

Every week they drag the pools out of the water and the fish are culled. Then they are sold to buyers in the cities. They are packed into ice and flash frozen and shipped around the world. It is ridiculous, but they are earning themselves a reputation. His father talks about sustainable models of growth. He says there will be money soon, in the next year.

Tom does not like the river farm. When he looks into the water it is like the river is choking on the pools. The pools hovering like prey amidst the hyacinth. Being of the country, he cannot wish to dominate it in the same way as his father. Who in some ways is still a visitor here. But Tom knows his father is right. Soon the river farm will be established. The money will flow in like water. The money is floating in the river now, and it will save them.

Which is why his father stands and stares at the water—the way a man stares at a pile of gold. Tom watches his father looking at the pools. The pools can only be seen by the clear-sighted. They are nothing but the faintest trace in the water. The old man is dressed in dinner clothes. A rim of dust gathers around the toe of his shoe, is lifted on a slow gust of wind. The wind goes, and the dust is gone and the old man’s feet stand in the dirt.

The sound of a motor vaults across the silence. His father looks up. Tom sees the Wallaces’ Ford pulling across the land. A small cloud of dust follows as it kicks down the track. The dust pulls and tugs and puffs and grows behind the vehicle. The motor rumble comes closer. His father stands and watches as the car approaches. Tom has already turned and is walking back to the house. He turns his head once to look back. The car is inching closer across the horizon. Tom quickens his pace.

By the time the car has pulled through the gates of the house the servants are ready and the ice in the liquor trolley has been freshened. Tom stands in the shadow of the veranda and watches as the car pulls down the drive. His father stands at the foot of the steps, one hand slipped into his suit pocket. His face is expressionless. The driver pulls the door open. Mr. Wallace. Mrs. Wallace. A third figure steps out of the car. A young woman, in a brightly patterned dress, emerges from the interior.

2.

The dorado is served in green sauce. It is served before the lamb and after the oysters and caviar. They sit around the table in silence as the wine is poured. The sun is setting and outside the sky continues to give off light. The dining room is open to the veranda but the room itself is half in darkness. Jose returns and lights the candles. His father nods to him and they listen to his footsteps as he goes. Then the room drops into silence again.

After a measurable pause—in which they sit and do not look at each other, and the candles waver and tremble in the silence—his father leans forward and picks up his wine glass. He takes a sip and examines the liquid hue. Mrs. Wallace looks at him. He almost looks benevolent, sitting in the candlelight with his wine glass in hand. Mrs. Wallace makes an attempt at conversation. (Mr. Wallace does not. Mr. Wallace knows better.)

“I have been saying to George, they must do something about this unrest amongst the natives. It is the Government’s responsibility to take some kind of action.”

“I have been saying to George, they must do something about this unrest amongst the natives. It is the Government’s responsibility to take some kind of action.”

The old man looks up from his glass of wine. He stares at Mrs. Wallace from across the table. Bravely, she continues.

“They should send in soldiers. They should teach them a lesson, before it gets out of hand. They are capable of anything, the natives. They are dangerous and cruel. It is impossible to reason with them. I wonder that they don’t see that.”

Mr. Wallace shakes his head.

“Enough, Martha.”

The old man ignores them both. He lowers his wine glass and looks across the table at the girl.

When the girl stepped out of the car, she was a thin ankle followed by a ruffled tea dress. Her hair set in waves. Her mouth carefully rouged. She looked lost in the dress and in the car, a pantomime of vulnerability. Tom sits beside her at the dinner table. His father sits across. Tom watches the girl. He has no idea how old she is. She looks like a child but he already knows she is no child.

He learns the facts about the girl. She is Mrs. Wallace’s second cousin. She is twenty-nine and part French. She has won herself—through hard application, nothing coming easy in life—a questionable reputation. Although really there is no question about it at all, the meaning being clear to everyone. There was trouble at home and she was shipped to Mrs. Wallace, for a length of time unspecified. The meaning of that also being clear.

Mrs. Wallace does not know the girl but she is responsible for her. It is evident, they are in this together. She looks at the girl and her gaze is complicit. Tom thinks: being women the collusion comes to them naturally. He has heard it said before. Mrs. Wallace touches the girl on the wrist. She is careful but proprietary, proprietary but wary. She will be happy when the problem of the girl is solved and she will not miss her when she is gone.

For now, she watches the girl. She measures up her assets and tests her strength in performance. Tom also watches the girl. She sits at the table. She speaks when she is spoken to. She is docile, she is polite. She is all this but there is nothing about her Tom trusts. He tells himself that she is not especially pretty. It is only her extreme pallor—she is so pale that when she blushes the color is hectic like a bruise—and her air of apparent youth that give the impression of attractiveness.

His father is a man of taste. The girl is nothing and yet—Tom watches his father watch the girl. The old man is still handsome. He is vain and vanity needs feeding. The women in the valley have been doing the feeding but the circle has been shrinking as one by one the farms close and the whites retreat to the city. Now there are not even the tourists to rely on.

This girl—sent out to Mrs. Wallace, small and pale and cunning–is perfectly shaped to capture the old man. She is nothing special but she is there and that is the difference. They are losing, have lost, the yardstick by which to measure the company of women. Not that Tom was ever a judge. He has not exactly been exposed to the female species.

His father’s voice is slow and cajoling. The tone an offer, a proposition to the girl. Tom sees her find her terrain in the words. She and the old man look at each other. A transaction in their gazes and she opens herself up. Tom sees it happen: so the girl has aligned herself with the old man.

Tom is filled with the urge to slap the girl across the face. His own vehemence taking him by surprise. Tom’s eyes stay on his father as he sips the wine and watches the girl.

“Carine.”

The girl looks up at him and then blinks. She waits for him to speak. Mr. Wallace and Mrs. Wallace look up from their plates. Tom does not look up. He stares down at his plate. He has not touched the food apart from the oysters. Topped with vinegar and white pepper. He slurped them down one after the other. Now his appetite is gone. He prods the food in front of him but does not eat.

“Do you like the fish?”

His father’s voice is slow and cajoling. The tone an offer, a proposition to the girl. Tom sees her find her terrain in the words. She and the old man look at each other. A transaction in their gazes and she opens herself up. Tom sees it happen: so the girl has aligned herself with the old man. Some intimacy has been established between them, in front of all of them, in that small and meaningless exchange.

The obscenity of it is not lost on anyone at the table. Mr. Wallace clears his throat and reaches for his wine glass. Mrs. Wallace looks down at her plate and pushes a chunk of fish with the tines of her fork. She toys with the fork and then sets it down without eating. Tom sees that they are ashamed. Of the trap that they have set, that is now in motion.

“Do you? Like the fish?”

Quickly, the girl reaches for her fork. She spears the flesh, breaking off a large piece and lifting it to her mouth. Her lips are pale and dry and cracked at the edges. It is the weather, Tom thinks. She is not used to the dryness of this country. She edges her mouth around the meat and swallows it whole. Tom looks down at his plate and slashes the fish with his fork.

The table is silent. Tom can hear her chewing. The indelicate chomping of her teeth and the loud gulp when she swallows. She continues chewing as she reaches for her water glass. They sit and stare at the girl. She takes a long swallow of water to wash the food down. Then she looks directly at his father and smiles–smiles so the rims of her teeth, which are small and white, show between her lips.

“I like it.”

He nods and smiles.

“Thomas caught the fish earlier today.”

He looks at his son. She follows the old man’s gaze and turns to look at Tom. She is still smiling. There is nothing timid about her now. Her eyes are bold and jumping. He looks into them and the corners of her mouth turn further upward. Like she is amused. Confused, he glares at her then looks down at his plate and forks up a mouthful of fish.

“Thomas is a natural fisherman. It is in his blood.”

His father is more than twice her age but her eyes are pinned to his lips as he speaks to her in his fur-lined baritone.

Tom knows his father is making fun of him. The old man smiles at him. Tom nods and then looks away. It amuses the old man to mock his son in front of strangers. Not that Tom cares what Mr. Wallace and Mrs. Wallace and this girl think. He does not care in the least.

“Thomas is a young man of many abilities.”

Now his father is looking at the girl. He is still smiling. The girl is watching him and despite all her wiles, she is in danger of growing fascinated. Tom can already tell. His father is more than twice her age but her eyes are pinned to his lips as he speaks to her in his fur-lined baritone. The old man cheats wild horses of their freedom with this voice. It runs deep into his chest, silky smooth and dry.

Tom dislikes the girl and is fearful of her. But he does not want her to her fall into the old man’s trap. Tom lives at the bottom of the trap. There is not very much space and he does not want to share his father with her. Tom has spent a lifetime watching people fall down the hole. He has never enjoyed the company. The girl looks at his father. She widens her eyes. It is too late, he thinks. She is already falling.

“Thomas can take you fishing some time. If you like.”

“I would like.”

She says the three words evenly and quickly. What she says—the would and the like—has nothing to do with fishing or with Tom or with anything that has been discussed at the table, anything that has been said out loud, since they arrived on the farm in their car.

Or perhaps it does. Have to do with everything that has happened since they arrived. Because now his father leans forward. His eyes rest on Tom and then return to the girl. He smiles. She smiles. The whole table smiles. Mr. Wallace and Mrs. Wallace sit back and for the first time that evening Mr. Wallace cracks a smile that is broad as daylight.

Only Tom does not smile. He glares at the dinner guests. They would do better to be cautious. They are beaming at his father—they grin and grin, mouths wide open—but they would do better to be aware of the situation they have walked into. Whatever that situation may be. The Wallaces are fools. They are no match for his father.

G

Author Image

Katie Kitamura is the author of The Longshot (Free Press, 2009), a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. She was creative consultant on the three-part documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, featuring philosopher Slavoj Žižek, as well as the sequel, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. She has written for publications including the New York Times, The Guardian, and Wired, and is a regular contributor to Frieze and Art Monthly. Gone to the Forest is forthcoming in August 2012 from Free Press.

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